As Willie Wilson’s campaign advisers gathered in a conference room this week to begin prepping him for the upcoming mayoral debates, the candidate resisted their pleas for him to join them.
“I do better just speaking from my gut,” growled Wilson, insisting we continue with our interview instead.
“I just want to be myself,” the self-made businessman explained later about his reluctance to prepare for what could be a crucial juncture in the campaign. “People know when you’re real or faking it.”
My own impression is that Willie Wilson is as real as real can get, which isn’t necessarily what you’re looking for in a mayor of Chicago, but certainly makes him the most interesting candidate in the five-man field.
I devoted so much of Wednesday’s column to Wilson’s self-reported foibles in his 2008 autobiography that I really wasn’t able to do justice to my talk with him.
As I suspect many voters are still trying to make a judgment about this political unknown whose reported personal contributions to his campaign have now surpassed $1.5 million, I thought I’d tell you more about what he had to say.
Dressed in a red Bulls sweat shirt with brown corduroy slacks, Wilson said that’s closer to how you’d normally find him than in those suits he’s wearing in his television commercials, although he always wears a tuxedo for his Sunday church appearances and gospel music performances.
I asked him to update me on his life since the book was published, at which time he’d just closed on a big business deal to open a glove factory in China and proclaimed himself “happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Wilson said he’s still happy, but not because of the China venture, which proved to be disastrous.
“I lost my shirt,” he said.
Between his investment in China and another glove-manufacturing facility he bought a year later in Tennessee that also closed, Wilson estimates he lost $5 million.
Wilson blamed the failures on a Chinese business partner who “took the money and ran” and a change in China tax law that made his Tennessee operation uncompetitive.
“I’m still trying to recover from it,” he said. But with some belt-tightening, he said his company, Omar Supplies, has regrouped, in part by continuing to expand its customer base.
Wilson said he is the 100 percent owner of south suburban-based Omar, named after a murdered 20-year-old son who Wilson says was a gang member and drug dealer.
The company sells such products as disposable gloves, garbage can liners, paper towels and tissues. Omar maintains four U.S. distribution facilities for its wares, which are imported from China.
Wilson said his biggest customers are Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants, whose brands include Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse.
It was Wilson’s start as a McDonald’s owner-operator that initially opened the door for him into the supply side of the restaurant business.
I’m assuming most of you have heard by now the story of how Wilson, then a low-level McDonald’s employee, approached company founder Ray Kroc at a shareholder’s meeting and asked him for a franchise — and that Kroc made it happen. Wilson would eventually own five McDonald’s restaurants, the last of which he says he sold in 2003.
It is a point of pride for Wilson that he competes head-on against white-owned companies instead of just looking for minority set-aside business.
“I don’t need nobody to do me no favors,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who sometimes goes by Dr. Wilson, clarified that all five of his doctoral degrees (four of which are from Bible colleges) are honorary. His formal education ended after the seventh grade, for which he makes no apologies.
Wilson emerged on the political scene last year as Republican Bruce Rauner’s personal guide to the African-American community, but Wilson said he’s never asked Rauner to support him for mayor, knowing the Republican governor is also a friend of Mayor Rohm Emanuel’s.
Of Rauner, he says: “I got to know him real well, and I got to like him pretty good.”
Wilson said Rauner has stayed in touch since the campaign as he promised.
Wilson doesn’t consider himself a Republican just because he backed Rauner.
“I voted Democratic 97 percent of my life, but I’m an independent thinker,” he said.
Like Rauner, Wilson promises he won’t take a government salary.
“I don’t need the money. I’m doing it from the heart,” said Wilson, who plans to keep his business “when” he’s elected.
“I would say right now you’re looking at the next mayor of Chicago,” Wilson told me.
I told him he ought to prepare for the debates.